Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why a Chicken? No-Mistake Hand Embroidery for Quilts and Beyond

Did you hear a  contented humming sound coming from the Left Coast last Sunday morning? That was my fellow Los Angeles stitchers and me, sewing flowers, chickens, African baskets, and other things, in a very  happy class.
We were attending a Southern California meeting of the awesome Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework; the class was African Folklore Embroidery, taught by Leora Raikin, an extraordinary young artist who was raised in South Africa

Everyone in the class received a kit, which is to say a 16" square piece of  black  fabric, with a simple outline sketched in white and a few sparse details. We could choose from designs depicting flora, fauna, Africana, Americana, or, unlikeliest of all, Judaica, which, it turns out, reflects Leora's heritage. (Choices here.)

I'd been reading a book about the lives of industrial chickens, so, perhaps out of guilt, perhaps as a tribute to my grandmother's soup, perhaps just because roosters are awesome, I chose the chicken; I picked the poultry.

The stitches Leora taught us just couldn't be simpler - mostly chain stitch, plus some interesting wrapping of threads around those chain stitches, easily creating complex-looking effects.

The embroidery threads that came with our kit were absolutely gorgeous - variegated threads dyed by South African women using environmentally friendly methods. As a result of Leora's enterprise, "All the women involved in the thread dying process have been able to move from shack housing to formal housing with running water and electricity," she notes.

So we're helping needy people while we sew! Especially with perilously ill Nelson Mandela in our thoughts, what could be better? Leora is dedicated to supporting African folk art, and to battling AIDS in her homeland. Read more about this remarkable woman here.

Quilts made from her designs have also won prizes at quilt shows - see the far right column on this page.

My rooster struck a perfect balance between relaxing-because-you're-following-instructions (i.e. the outlines), and exciting-because-you're-choosing-colors-and-stitches. It also helped that Leora prohibited us from ripping things out. "There are no mistakes!" she insisted. "No matter what you do, it will be gorgeous!" And she was right! What could be better?

And so, despite my unfortunate choice of a mohawk coiffure for the bird (no ripping!)...
...I couldn't put him/her down. After the conference, and into the night, I stitched until s/he was more or less done.  (I'm a little vague about ascertaining hen/rooster gender. No wattle?)

More! I needed to embroider more! So, (not quite finished with my denim creation spasm) I cut two leg segments from a pair of denim jeans, and turned them into wrist/coffee cup cuffs/quiltlets, embellished with useful reminders/affirmations.

First, Imagine
That's an amazing yarn called Sashay on the bottom. My Local Teen wants me to take that part off.
There are three vintage plastic buttons down the right side, and three hand-stitched buttonholes horizontally down the left side (look closely).

Second,  "I (heart) Green."
The top and bottom edging are crocheted. Three more vintage buttons run down the right side. I haven't yet put buttonholes down the left. The outline of the leaf below shows more clearly what a chain stitch looks like when it's wrapped with another color, as Leora had taught us. It started as  a light green outline, and both sides of each stitch were wrapped with dark green. Pretty cool, eh?
The small light green stitches on the leaf seemed like a good idea at the time, but eventually I realized they kind of look like an egg infestation...but no ripping! This cuff serves as a reminder to eat a lot of organic salad, disregarding any vermin; and/or to purchase fair-trade environmentally-friendly coffee, as well as embroidery threads.

Want to give it a shot? One of Leora's kits or classes will definitely put you directly into the happy zone. There are also lots of simple embroidery stitch tutorials on the web, including  those from Sublime Stitching and Sarah's Hand Embroidery Tutorials.

To make a denim coffee/wrist cuff:

1. Cut a loop from a jeans leg. I cut mine to about  3" high (for 'Imagine') or 3 1/2" high (for 'Green').

2. Make the cut down along the right side of the less obvious vertical seam. When you open it up, the strip should be in a gentle arch, with the center a bit higher than both outer ends.

3. Measure it and cut it back to about 9" long, with one of those inches extending to the right, past the thick seam.

4. Pin it onto your wrist with the button end going under the other end. (Or pin it around a cardboard coffee cup). Figure out and mark an area to the right of the thick seam where the buttons should go. Mark where the buttonholes should go on the upper flap. Don't cut the holes out yet. You may want to cut the cuff shorter, as needed.

5. Sew the buttons in position.

6. If you want lettering or a drawing, it's probably a good idea to write it out on the denim first. I used a white chalk pencil. The longest side should be the top (in order to work with flared coffee cups).

7. Go to town with embroidery threads. (You can even order Leora's beautiful do-good threads, with or  without the kits.) Stitch yourself into the happy zone.

8. Optional: If you want to cover the stitching on the back, use fusible web to attach a layer of fabric cut to the same size as the denim strip onto the back. I'm liking my thready backs, so I haven't done this yet.

9. Do a blanket stitch all the way around (Edge Perfect blade can help).

10. Cut buttonholes. Add a few drops of fray-stopping fluid to each and let dry. Whip stitch around each opening.

10. Place on arm and/or coffee cup and wear with pride!
 Yes, I would like to hear about your favorite hand-embroidery experiences!

Oh, and one more thing: What should I do with my funky chicken? Bed quilt bird? Framed fowl? Poultry purse?

UPDATE: A reader told me about Canadian quilter Valerie Hearder, whose website sells quilt squares, textiles, jewelry and other items made by South African women, which helps them support their families in difficult conditions. Read her story and shop here:


  1. That sounds like fun! I will be teaching at a summer camp and may incorporate some of this.

    1. This is an absolutely perfect summer camp activity, Jacqueline, for kids over 10 I would guess (Leora would know better). Your kids won't be able to put it down! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Oooo, I love hand stitching of any kind. I really dig the Mohawk!

    1. Thanks, Beth, I'm so glad someone likes that Mohawk. I did want to rip it out for a while, but it's growing on me (no pun intended)....
      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Cathy, I love your fowl/poultry. If one is particularly into exact gender identity a crocheted wattle could be added. I love her the way she is though.

  4. Daysi, thank you so much for straightening me out on the Fowl Facts of Life! I think I like her without the wattle, too!